Women Say Richard Meier’s Conduct Was Widely Known Yet Went Unchecked
Not long after she joined Richard Meier’s architecture firm in 1989, Karin Bruckner was working at the office one Sunday, she said, when Mr. Meier came up beside her at a copy machine and started rubbing his body up and down against hers.
“I just stood there and froze,” Ms. Bruckner said. “‘This is not happening’ — that’s the first thing you think about — ‘He’s not doing this right now, I’m sure he’s not doing this.’”
She later confided to John Eisler, a senior associate, about what had occurred, and Mr. Eisler was sympathetic.
“It’s not something that was a secret,” he said in a recent interview about Mr. Meier’s conduct. But Mr. Eisler, who spent 20 years at the firm, said he did not confront Mr. Meier after hearing from Ms. Bruckner.
“I am sorry,” he said, “that I did not.”
After a report last month by The New York Times detailing a pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Meier, more women have come forward to share their own upsetting encounters with him. But in recounting such experiences, these women said they had also been disturbed by a sense of helplessness that pervaded the firm. Mr. Meier’s behavior was common knowledge, they said, but no one seemed to have the power to stop it.
Over the last six months, a number of fields have been forced to reckon with revelations regarding powerful men who harassed or assaulted underlinings, some for many years, without being stopped by their companies or organizations.
At Richard Meier & Partners Architects, there was no one more powerful than Mr. Meier, a world-famous architect whose firm depended on him for its prestige and success. It was years before #MeToo; protesting harassment was far more perilous.
Ms. Bruckner said she did not fault Mr. Eisler for his silence.
“I don’t think he felt he had any power to do anything about it,” said Ms. Bruckner, who worked at the firm until 1992, when she left to work for the architect Philip Johnson. She said people in the office were too afraid of what would happen to the firm, and their jobs, should Mr. Meier’s name be sullied.
“It’s behavior that goes on for decades and never changes,” she said. “‘We don’t go up against the bad guy because it will have a domino effect; if he falls down, everybody else falls down.’”
Following the initial Times report, which involved five women, Mr. Meier, 83, said that “while our recollections may differ, I sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by my behavior.” He said he would take a six-month leave from his firm.
Four more women have since come forward to share their experiences concerning Mr. Meier: Ms. Bruckner; Eileen Delgado, a former office manager; Lucy Nathanson, Mr. Meier’s former personal assistant; and Liz Lee, who worked as the communications coordinator.
Through a spokesman, Mr. Meier and his partners declined to be interviewed about the new accusations but issued this statement: “The allegations involving Richard Meier, the most recent of which were nearly a decade old, do not reflect the ethos and culture of the firm, and it would be irresponsible to allow these personal allegations to tarnish the company.”
It is unclear to what extent executives at the firm, including Mr. Meier’s partners, were aware of the sexual advances women are now publicly describing. Most of the women said they were too afraid for their jobs to lodge formal complaints with the management.
But some women did, and the firm appears to have reached at least two settlements. Ms. Delgado said she received about $25,000 in 1992 after Mr. Meier threw himself on top of her.
As reported earlier, Alexis Zamlich received $150,000 in 2009 after Mr. Meier had exposed himself to her, and another employee — Laura Trimble Elbogen — reported that Mr. Meier had asked her to undress, accounts that have been confirmed by the firm’s former chief operating officer.
All three episodes were said to have occurred in Mr. Meier’s Upper East Side apartment.
The firm has declined to discuss any settlements, but it said that after the two 2009 incidents, it instituted its first sexual harassment training program and updated its sexual harassment policy, which was put in the company handbook in 1993. No women have come forward to report negative experiences at the firm from after 2009.
Ms. Delgado, who worked as the office manager for several months in 1991 and 1992, said that Mr. Meier had asked her to work at his apartment, where he gave her a glass of wine and sat beside her on the sofa. “All of a sudden, I was thrust back and hit my head on a table,” Ms. Delgado said. “This man was on top of me, his tongue was down my throat, and he put my hand on his penis.”
The next day at the office, Ms. Delgado told the bookkeeper, Francina Foskey, who she said responded, “Oh, God, you, too?,” and then proceeded to spin through a Rolodex, pointing to the names of women who had complained to her about Meier’s sexual overtures. “She said, ‘Her, her, her, her,’ and as she’s turning them, we’re counting,” Ms. Delgado said. (Ms. Foskey died in 1997.)
Ms. Delgado said she got up the courage to hire a lawyer and settled with the firm under a nondisclosure agreement. Mr. Meier’s two other partners at the time were Robert Gatje and Thomas Phifer.
Mr. Gatje, interviewed a short time before his death, said that he wound up suing the firm himself but would not say for what because he was bound by a nondisclosure agreement. Asked about the allegations of sexual harassment, Mr. Gatje said: “That was 25 years ago. Things were a lot different back then.”
Mr. Phifer said that he never received a complaint of sexual harassment but that he had his own problems with Mr. Meier.
“What did happen is an enormous amount of verbal abuse, which I encountered myself, as did the rest of the office,” he said. “It’s the reason I left.”
Indeed, the conduct employees objected to extended beyond sexual advances. Former workers said that Mr. Meier — a winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s top award, and the designer of notable buildings like the Getty Center in Los Angeles — ruled like a despot. They said he was loath to bring on partners, publicly berated even senior employees, and moved through the office as a brooding, bullying presence who inspired fear and deference.
Adam Eli Clem, who worked as an assistant archivist from 1994 to 1996, said Mr. Meier’s “toxic” behavior prompted “a kind of underground in the office that functioned to warn people about what they could expect.”
This was particularly true for women, who knew to wait for one another at the end of the day to avoid leaving a female colleague alone with Mr. Meier. Despite such efforts, some women said they were nevertheless asked by Mr. Meier to work at his apartment.
One was Ms. Nathanson, Mr. Meier’s personal assistant in 1995, who said he put his hands on her shoulders while showing her a book of vintage erotica.
“I felt trapped in my chair,” she said. “I felt my heart beating faster and faster and faster. I closed the book and pushed it away. I continued to work, but it was difficult to work.”
When she got her coat to leave, “he came up behind me, put his hands over my head on the wall and pressed his body into me with an erection,” Ms. Nathanson said. “The elevator came, I got in and left. I collapsed in the lobby in a chair and started to cry.”
Despite what appeared to her to be a general knowledge at the firm about Mr. Meier’s advances, Ms. Nathanson said, nothing changed.
“People would hold you in your arms and weep with you, but they wouldn’t talk to the boss,” she said. “They did not want to lose their jobs.”
Just three weeks later, Ms. Nathanson said, she lost her own job, in what Mr. Meier described to her as a “restructuring.”
One former partner, Gunter R. Standke, who worked there for 12 years until the early 1990s, said he had been aware that Mr. Meier was attracted to young women and that Mr. Meier would sometimes approach them at their desks in the evening and ask them to leave with him. But Mr. Standke said that none of the women had ever complained to him and that he was too busy to investigate what might be happening after hours.
“I had all the European projects,” he said. “I had no time to watch what Mr. Meier was doing.”
The firm, in its statement, said its renown stemmed not only from “brilliant architectural design and execution” but also “an environment that respects a diverse, motivated staff.” It said that the average tenure of its employees — nearly 50 percent of whom are women — is 13 years, “a testament to the positive workplace.”
While most of the women interviewed said they did not tell company officials what had happened to them, they did tell co-workers.
Liz Lee, who worked as the communications coordinator from 2002 to 2004, said she was once called to Mr. Meier’s apartment, ostensibly to inventory his art collection.
When she walked in the door, Ms. Lee said, Mr. Meier was naked. “I did not feel like I could just leave,” she said. He later put his hand on her buttocks, she said, while showing her his collages.
When Ms. Lee told colleagues, she said, they were not surprised. “They said, ‘Richard is an abusive person,’” she said, “‘but he’s the boss.’”
Ms. Bruckner said that she, too, told other women at the firm about what had happened to her at the copy machine.
“It turned out that everybody had a story,’” she said. “They all said, ‘Management doesn’t want to hear about it, and the best thing is to just move on.’”
Follow Robin Pogrebin on Twitter: rpogrebin.